- by Bishop John Shelby Spong -
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The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Newark, the Most Reverend John J. Myers, has recently issued “A Pastoral Teaching on the Definition, Purpose and Sanctity of Marriage.” In this document, which is clearly politically motivated, he urges “faithful Catholics” and other “men and women of goodwill” to vote against any candidate for public office who supports same-sex marriage. He also states that “all Catholics, who support a candidate for elective office, who does not oppose same sex marriage, should consider themselves excommunicated, and should, therefore, absent themselves from the Eucharist at Catholic altars.
I have never met Archbishop Myers. I have no reason to believe he is not a good and sincere person. When one enters a public debate, however, especially in an attempt to elect one candidate over another, one has a responsibility to be well-informed on the issues about which one speaks. It is not sufficient simply to appeal to the authority of the magisterium of one’s church to find support for these ideas or to quote traditional religious conclusions, as if they are still viable or are still accepted in academic and intellectual circles. This is the Archbishop’s fatal error. His underlying definition of homosexuality is the badly dated and all but universally rejected idea that it is “deviant,” “unnatural” or even “evil.” His definition of human life is based on the pre-Darwinian idea that life was created perfect only to fall into “Original Sin,” which then distorted humanity’s original perfection, thus justifying the negativity toward homosexuality because it is an expression of that distortion. Darwin’s thought, which today underlies all science and is the basis of teaching in every medical school in the developed world, has also been validated by the discovery of DNA. That idea can hardly be dismissed because it is inconvenient to one’s religious doctrines. Darwin teaches us that there never was a time of human perfection, but that we have always been evolving into our humanity. We are, therefore, not fallen sinners, but rather incomplete human beings. To talk, about how God established monogamous heterosexuality as the basis for all family life at the time of creation, which means that it cannot be validly set aside by any government or political decision, is to engage in pious nonsense. It also reveals a lack of knowledge about and understanding of the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship. To go on from that weak premise to liken homosexuality to incest and to use this argument to buttress other positions of the Roman Catholic Church, including opposition to all forms of contraception and family planning; opposition to abortion under any circumstances, including rape, incest and the threat to the life of the mother; opposition to any end of life conversations or procedures, as well as opposition to the full acceptance of gay and lesbian people as violations of God’s natural law is, quite frankly, breathtaking in both its gall and its arrogance.
Let me try to unravel this maze of incoherent conclusions. Did God set monogamous coupling as the original basic building block of all human society in the creation story of the book of Genesis? Of course not! Does the good archbishop not know that the “seven-day” creation story of Genesis 1:1-2:4a is a product of the 6th century BCE? Does he not know that the story of the “fall,” as related in Genesis 2:4b-24 is the product of the 10th century BCE? Neither of these times is anywhere close to the beginning of human history. Human-like creatures, called hominids, have populated this planet for at least 4,000,000 years, and self-conscious, language-using, recognizably human creatures have been on this planet, according to the best scientific estimates for somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 years. The biblical story of creation is, thus, very recent, relatively speaking. In most of human history monogamous marriage between one man and one woman was all but unknown. The original pattern of human “marriage” and family life appears to have been polygamy and harems. Since women were largely regarded as property in that period of time, the number of wives a man had determined his wealth and status. A vestigial reminder of this value system is preserved in church marriage ceremonies, when one man, the father, gives the bride away to another man, the husband, as if she were a possession. When the early writers of the Bible sought to describe this period of their own Hebrew ancestry, they quite accurately portrayed their forebears, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as polygamous people. Even the ultimate Jewish hero, King David, who was called “the man after God’s own heart,” was portrayed as the husband of many wives. His son, Solomon, in whose reign the Adam and Eve story was actually written, was famous for having had 300 wives and 700 concubines. So the suggestion that the monogamous, heterosexual marriage of one man to one woman is the original divine plan written into “natural law” and is, therefore the “basic building block of the social order” and thus not capable of being altered is both patently false and historically inaccurate. Marriage as a human institution has been and still is evolving from polygamy based on male supremacy to monogamy, based on sexual equality. In the light of this understanding the ability to grant to same-sex couples the dignity and sanction of official marriage is simply another step to be welcomed in that evolution.
The prelude to that new step in the evolution of marriage is the recognition, now universally acknowledged, that homosexuality is a reality among many higher mammals. What is present in the natural world can hardly be called “unnatural” or the result of the fall! Because an Archbishop cannot process this new insight outside his dated and antiquated theological and ethical frame of reference does not make it “evil,” it rather reveals the limitation of knowledge present in the system on which that archbishop bases his decisions. These are the facts that need to be embraced: No reputable scientist today supports the idea that anyone chooses his or her sexual orientation; scientific data now validates the reality that the number of homosexual people in the population is a steady, perhaps fixed, percentage among all people at all times and in all places; homosexuality cannot be cured because it is not a disease and those organizations that claim to be able to do so are fraudulent; homosexuality is not hereditary and every gay or lesbian person is presumably the child of a heterosexual union, and children born to gay men or lesbians have no higher chance of being gay or lesbian than the ratio in the population. These facts mean that the moral teaching of the church, as expressed in the “Pastoral Teaching” of the Archbishop of Newark is based on premises that are no longer viable and thus cannot with credibility be used to counter the best scientific scholarship available to the world today.
Does the Archbishop want to repeat the darker chapters of church history? Galileo was right in the 17th century even when he was found guilty by the church of heresy. It simply took the Roman Catholic Church some 400 more years before its leaders were able to free themselves sufficiently to open their doctrinally closed minds. Charles Darwin was also right in 1859, but it was in the 1990’s before this church could acknowledge this fact in a very tepid and limited way.
The problem is that when religious leaders issue statements, based, not on knowledge and contemporary research, but rather reflecting their comfort level inside their own closed systems of thought, all the while pretending that this is divinely revealed knowledge, they do enormous damage to people whose humanity they so badly compromise. The church supported for centuries the institution of slavery, even quoting the Bible to justify it. The church supported second class status for women and in many places still does so to this day, once again quoting the scriptures to give this prejudice the cover of perfumed piety. When Archbishop Myers argues, not for the equality of women, but for the “complementarity” of women, is he not doing anything other than to quote an ecclesiastical version of the old “separate but equal” argument used for so long to justify segregation? Homosexual persons are a perfectly normal, but minority, part of the human family. So are left-handed people, bald-headed people and red-headed people. To call homosexual persons “deviant,” “unnatural” or “evil” is a commentary not on the gay community, but on the uninformed prejudice of the person or institution that is speaking. The Fourth Gospel portrays Jesus as saying that his task, and thus the task of his church, is to be the giver of abundant life to all people. Can anyone do that by calling another, who is different, “evil, deviant and unnatural?”
This “Pastoral Teaching” reaches the height of absurdity when it suggests that homosexual partners ought to seek heterosexual unions and try to make them work. Elements in the church well into the 20th century thought that they had to break the “unnatural” stance of being left-handed by tying the hands of left-handed children behind their backs in order to force them to be “normal.” We now know that this was nothing but an expression of ignorance as to how the brain was organized, but it dehumanized many a left-handed child before the religious leadership got over its prejudice and began to recognize that the problem was not located in the victim that they so badly violated, but in the ignorance that fed the prejudice of the violating ones. That is exactly what is being done anew in this “Pastoral Teaching” promulgated by Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark.
Of course the Bible reflects the prejudices of antiquity toward those who are “different.” That, however, should not be used to justify the continuation of these destructive patterns. We have, over the centuries, learned to set some parts of the Bible aside when we come to new understandings of truth. That is what is now happening in our society as a new consciousness is being forged, based upon contemporary understanding of how human values operate. One cannot uphold ancient ignorance by pretending that one’s own prejudice is blessed by God. That is what Archbishop Myers seeks to do.
His “Pastoral Teaching” will be ridiculed by the educated. It will be ignored by those he calls “the faithful,” just as they today largely ignore the church’s teaching on birth control, end of life decisions and even abortion. The sad thing is that the credibility of the church is compromised by the uninformed prejudice of its leaders and time ultimately will sweep this ignorance aside. It will be the laity of this church who will dismiss it in their practice first. Both the Pope and the Archbishop will someday discover that “truth,” which is not truth, cannot be imposed. Only then will their minds be changed and apology will be appropriate for the pain their prejudice and ignorance, has caused millions, including many who are priests and bishops of their own church.
~John Shelby Spong
Read the essay online here.